A Short History of Stucco

June 1st, 2010

Hand-modelled plasterwork is now a rarity, but it has an honourable place in the history of art and architecture. The Romans learnt about stucco from the Persians. It was used for Buddhist sculpture in Afghanistan, Hindu sculpture in India, and early Renaissance sculpture in Western Europe…

Donatello used stucco for portrait busts and in the mid 1600s Bernini used it in many of his decorative schemes, such as Sant’Andrea al Quirinale, exerting a profound influence on the use of the material over the next hundred years. In Britain it was widely employed in the Tudor period for decorative ceilings and reached its full glory in the 17th and 18th centuries when artists and craftsmen created incredible baroque and rococo schemes in some of Britain’s finest houses. Meanwhile in Bavaria and Sicily astonishing works of architectural sculpture were created by Egid Quirin Asam and Giacomo Serpotta.

When the use of stucco started to wane in the mid to late 18th century, it was partly the result of stylistic change and partly the result of technical developments. The fashion for baroque and rococo gradually gave way to the neoclassical. A more reserved style, its shallow relief and use of repeated motifs was technically suited to casting. This coincided with gypsum becoming more readily available, making it possible to cast repeatedly from one original model quickly and cheaply. Stucco became relatively expensive and the concept of hand-modelled sculptural work gradually disappeared.

In continental Europe stucco remained in use throughout the 19th century. With the dramatic changes in architectural style in Europe in the 20th century and the belief that surface decoration was decadent, stucco was rarely used. But it was revived for the faithful repair and restoration of many wonderful baroque and rococo interiors after the destruction of World War II, and was still taught in Eastern European art schools until perestroika. In Britain however, the recipes and techniques associated with stucco had completely disappeared. Until 1989, that is, when a fire at the National Trust’s Uppark House destroyed five spectacular 18th century ceilings. The need to restore these beautiful ceilings called for the rediscovery of the art of hand-modelled stucco.